The Early Edition: June 7, 2019

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Democrats yesterday unveiled a resolution authorizing the House Judiciary Committee to seek a court order to enforce its subpoenas against U.S. Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn. Both men have refused to cooperate with the panel, which wants the unredacted Mueller report, as well as testimony from McGahn, Reuters reports.

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) told leaders from his party that he could issue a subpoena to former special counsel Robert Mueller within two weeks. The committee is still negotiating with Mueller, who, according to Nadler, is so far only willing to answer lawmakers’ questions in private, Andrew Desiderio and Heather Caygle report at POLITICO.

President Trump yesterday hit back at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)  after she reportedly said behind closed doors that she wanted to see the president “in prison” instead of being impeached. In an interview with Fox News, taped near the Normandy American cemetery where 9,000 American veterans are buried, Trump described Pelosi as a “nasty, vindictive, horrible person,” Kate Sullivan reports at CNN.

“I think she’s a disgrace … I don’t think she’s a talented person,” Trump said of Pelosi. “I’ve tried to be nice to her because I would have liked to have gotten some deals done … she’s incapable of doing deals,” the president added, Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

Trump added that Mueller had “made a fool out of himself” last time he testified before Congress. When asked about the president’s comments, Pelosi said: “I don’t talk about the president while I’m out of the country … that’s my principle,” upholding an unwritten rule about not smearing political opponents in public while abroad, the Guardian reports.

A federal judge yesterday released the audio of a voicemail that former Trump attorney John Dowd left in late 2017 asking lawyers for former national security adviser Michael Flynn for a “heads-up” if he knew of information implicating President Trump. In the audio, reportedly used by Mueller in his obstruction of justice inquiry, Dowd also reminds the lawyers that Trump’s “feelings” toward Flynn – a former campaign adviser – still remain, Michael S. Schmidt reports at the New York Times.

Prosecutors have released a more lightly redacted version of an F.B.I. memo describing the interview agents held with Flynn in January 2017. The document indicates that Flynn told investigators that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak asked him during a Dec. 28, 2016, phone call to set up a “VTC,” an apparent reference to a video teleconference between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Democrats moving toward potential impeachment accelerating the pace of Congressional investigations are reportedly becoming increasingly concerned that the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) will frustrate their efforts. An internal D.O.J. watchdog report on the origins of the Russia probe is expected to highlight potential political bias by F.B.I. agents which in turn could raise questions about the Bureau’s decision-making processes – all to the advantage of the president, Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney write at POLITICO.

“Faced with the facts and the truth, Barr has done what many good defense attorneys do — attack the investigation and the investigation … but he’s not a defense attorney,” Mimi Roach comments at NBC, arguing that “Barr, in his capacity as the nation’s top lawyer, is the one who has strayed from the ideals of the D.O.J. and everything it should stand for.”

The outlines of a potential civilian prosecution of Donald Trump in the aftermath of his time in office is already taking shape, Just Security Editor Renato Mariotti writes in an Op-Ed at POLITICO Magazine.

RUSSIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated yesterday that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, despite the extensive contrary evidence, and claimed that Moscow has no intention of interfering in any future votes. During a meeting with chief executives of international news agencies in St. Petersburg, Putin told reports that “we didn’t meddle, we aren’t meddling and we will not meddle in any elections,” Gary Pruitt reports at the AP.

Putin stated that Russia does not plan to send troops to Venezuela; “we aren’t building any military bases there [Venezuela], we aren’t sending troops there, we have never done that,” the Russian leader commented. Putin also warned that a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela would be a “catastrophe,” claiming that even Washington’s allies did not support such a course of action, Al Jazeera reports.

The Kremlin today stated that Putin and Trump could meet this month in Japan at the G.20 meeting. “There is of course a chance … there is a chance anything could happen,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters, Reuters reports.

Russia is concerned about Japan’s military cooperation with the U.S. – but respects Tokyo’s right to defend itself “anyway it sees fit,” Putin commented yesterday, adding that Moscow and Tokyo need to increase trust levels, Reuters reports.

Putin expressed hope yesterday that Britain’s next prime minister would “see the bigger picture” and forget about the poisoning of former intelligence operative Sergei Skripal in the western English town of Salisbury last year. Putin told reports in St Petersburg that he hoped whoever succeeded Prime Minister Theresa May would “move on from the Skripal incident,” Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn report at Reuters.

“Britain’s relationship with Russia can only change when Moscow changes its behavior,” May’s spokesperson commented yesterday, after Putin revealed he hoped for better relations under the Prime Minister’s successor. “We will continue to engage with Russia on matters of international security as this is in the U.K.’s national interest,” the spokesperson told reporters, adding that “we have been clear that Russia’s pattern of aggression and destabilizing behavior undermines its claims to be a responsible international partner,” Reuters reports.

The U.S. Navy announced today that a Russian destroyer nearly collided with one of its guided missile cruisers in the Philippine Sea. Seventh Fleet spokesperson Cmd. Clayton Doss described the incident as “unsafe and unprofessional,” Reuters reports.

A transcript of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin’s remarks in Moscow is provided at Foreign Policy.

CHINA AND HUAWEI

The extradition hearing for Huawei C.F.O. Meng Wanzhou will begin on Jan. 20, over a year after she was taken into custody at Vancouver’s airport. Meng’s defense lawyer David Martin says the schedule could allow the case to be concluded within two years, which he commented would be a “record” for such a complicated case, the AP reports.

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei needs to raise its “shoddy” security standards which fall below rivals, technical director of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre Ian Levy said yesterday at a conference in London. “Huawei as a company builds stuff very differently to their Western counterparts … part of that is because of how quickly they’ve grown up, part of it could be cultural … who knows,” Levy commented, adding “the security is objectively worse, and we need to cope with that,” Jack Stubbs reports at Reuters.

Tech giant Google has reportedly warned the Trump administration that it risks compromising U.S. national security if it continues its ban on Huawei. “Google has been arguing that by stopping it from dealing with Huawei, the U.S. risks creating a hybrid [kind of Android operating system] likely to have more bugs in it than the Google one, and so could put Huawei phones more at risk of being hacked,” a source familiar with the conversations stated, Kiran Stacey and James Politi report at the Financial Times.

“Google is quietly assuming the role of Huawei emissary,” according to a senior Huawei official, NPR reports.

The U.S. must try to deter Chinese aggression in order to avoid conflict, Josh Rogin comments at the Washington Post, arguing that China is “not yet deterred” and it is not clear whether it can be.

Huawei’s public relations campaign “comes straight from the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P.) playbook,” Matt Schrader writes at Foreign Policy, commenting that the current trade war shows how deep Beijing’s global influence runs.

MEXICO TARIFFS AND BORDER SECURITY

The White House is standing firm on its position that Mexico must make take significant new steps to halt an increase of Central American migrants by Monday, or face tariffs on its exports to the U.S., press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday. “We are still moving forward with tariffs at this time,” Sanders said in a statement, reacting to a report that the U.S. was looking at a delay for the tariffs attempts to negotiate a deal go down to the wire, Reuters reports.

“At this point the tariffs are going to be imposed on Monday,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said in Pennsylvania yesterday, adding “I’m encouraged they came today with more but it will be a matter for the president to consider.” Doug Palmer and Ted Hesson report at POLITICO.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard yesterday said that his government was ready to deploy the country’s newly created National Guard to the border with Guatemala, making the announcement after a second round of talks at the State Department last night. “We have explained that there are 6,000 men and that they will be deployed there,” Ebrard told reporters, adding that talks will continue today, Josh Zumbrun and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced he would travel to the border city of Tijuana tomorrow for what he described as a “unity rally to defend Mexico’s dignity and promote our friendship with the people of the United States.” Obrador told a news conference that “all options” are under review in the event Trump goes ahead with the tariffs, AFP reports.

Mexico has continued intensifying efforts to stem the flow of migrants at the Southern border. The country’s finance ministry’s financial intelligence unit yesterday announced it had blocked the accounts of 26 people for “their probable link with human trafficking and illicit support of migrant caravans,” David Agren reports at the Guardian.

Trump’s Mexico policy has served to undermine “one of the most impressive U.S. foreign policy achievements of the past three decades,” Fareed Zakaria comments at the Washington Post.

“The administration’s use of tariffs to push its foreign policy goals is not as irrational as Trump’s enemies make it seem,” Jennifer M. Harris and Todd Tucker explain at POLITICO Magazine, pointing out: “it shouldn’t be this way, but in 2019, if the United States wants to fix some of the big policy arguments it has with its trading partners, it has left little leverage besides the blunt tool of tariffs.

IRAN

The threat from Iran remains “imminent,” according to head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie – though the country has decided to “step back and recalculate” after preparing for an apparent attack against U.S. forces in the Gulf. “I don’t actually believe the threat has diminished … I believe the threat is very real,” McKenzie told reporters yesterday, adding that he would not rule out requesting additional U.S. forces to bolster defenses against Iranian missiles or other weapons, the AP reports.

McKenzie believes that U.S. deployments to the region caused Iran to “back up a little bit,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Attacks on four tankers off the U.A.E. coast on May 12. were part of a “sophisticated and coordinated operation” – most likely carried out by a “state actor,” the U.A.E. told the U.N. Security Council yesterday, without naming any country explicitly. The conclusions follow the initial findings of an international investigation into attacks, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. military shadowed two Iranian commercial boats sailing around the Persian Gulf for two weeks in May, Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran is “failing as a nation” after Washington imposed sanctions last year, President Trump stated yesterday, adding that things could change rapidly in talks with the leadership in Tehran. “When I became president, Iran was a true state of terror … they still are and were undisputed champions of terror,” Trump told reporters, Al Jazeera reports.

Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday downplayed their differences on Iran. “I don’t think we have differences over Iran,” Trump told reporters ahead of a bilateral meeting with Macron in Caen, France, adding “I don’t think that the president wants to see nuclear weapons and neither do I,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Iran today rejected French calls for wider international talks over its nuclear and military plans, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

Syrian insurgents launched an offensive yesterday against government forces in northwestern Syria, according to armed opposition and U.K.-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group reported that the rebel offensive began in the afternoon, with a volley of rockets and missiles launched at government forces in a handful of villages recently captured from the opposition on the southern edge of the rebel stronghold, the AP reports.

The Syrian government and its Russian backers have turned to a familiar tactic in their assault on the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib: “relentlessly and systematically striking residential areas, hospitals, markets, crops and infrastructure to break the will of the population and pressure people to flee.” Sarah El-Deeb provides an account at the AP.

LIBYA

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled eastern Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) yesterday conducted an air strike on the military section of country’s only functioning airport, according to a statement by the force. The strike marks a second consecutive night attack, Reuters reports.

Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) claimed responsibility yesterday for two car bomb explosions targeting a military unit belonging to the L.N.A. in Derna earlier this week, the extremists’ Al-Nabaa newspaper reported. At least 18 people were wounded in the explosions in the eastern coastal city, according to a medical source and residents, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 10 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq between April 21 and May 4 [Central Command].

The African Union (A.U.) yesterday suspended Sudan from the bloc until the establishment of civilian rule, heightening global pressure on the country’s new military leaders to stand down following the worst violence since former President’s Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in April. Ethiopia – host nation for the A.U. – has reportedly planned a mediation effort, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed due to meet members of both Sudan’s ruling Transitional Council (T.M.C.) and the opposition today, according to a diplomatic source, Reuters reports.

Several business allies of President Trump have reportedly been invited to an economic meeting that aims to spur investment in the Middle East as part of the administration’s long-awaited peace plan for the region. Colony Capital C.E.O. Tom Barrack, Blackstone C.E.O. Steve Schwarzman, BlackRock C.E.O. Larry Fink and Goldman Sachs’s Dina Powell were invited to the summit, Brian Schwartz reports at CNBC.

“A meme in conservative media that there is a concerted effort on the liberal side … to invoke concern about the Supreme Court’s ‘legitimacy’ as a tool for prying Chief Justice John Roberts away from his conservative soul mates on the court,” Linda Greenhouse writes at the New York Times, considering the implications of that view in advance of the upcoming census case.

The U.S.A. Freedom Act – introduced in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations – is set to expire on Dec. 15. Patrick Eddington explores the significance of the development at Just Security.  

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Senior Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).

Nat O'Connell

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).